Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
March 30, 2001
Tribal Injustice and the State Courts
Jawnie Hough update

By Bill Lawrence and Clara NiiSka

 Jawnie Hough appeared in the Ninth Judicial District Court in Bemidji, Minnesota before Judge Paul T. Benshoof on Monday, March 26.  She is charged with the felony of “depriving another of custodial or parental rights.”  Ms. Hough’s attorney, public defender Kristine Kolar, asked for a continuance—pending “resolution” of custody by the Red Lake tribal court.  Ms. Hough, a Leech Lake enrollee, resides on the Leech Lake reservation.

 Press/ON attempted to contact Ms. Kolar and ask her why she decided to ask for a continuance, and subject her client Ms. Hough to the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal court, but Ms. Kolar was out of town until Friday.

 Press/ON contacted prominent Twin Cities defense attorney Frederic Bruno, and asked how he would advise a client under similar circumstances.  He responded that his advice to his client would be to get the felony charges dismissed a soon as possible, and to appeal the Beltrami Court order giving custody to the father, Donald Brun, Jr.  Defense attorney Bruno also told Press/ON that from what he had read about the Red Lake tribal court, he would never advise a client who was not a Red Lake tribal member to subject themselves to Red Lake jurisdiction.

Jawnie Hough was awarded primary custody of her 4 year old daughter Meghan Brun in June 1999 by a divorce decree from the district court in Beltrami County.  Both parties were residing in Bemidji, Minnesota when Jawnie Hough filed for divorce.  It is clear from the court records and informed sources that Ms. Hough complied with the provisions of the divorce decree and made reasonable accommodations for visitation.  Then, after a weekend visitation in April 2000, the paternal grandparents, who had taken Meghan with them to Red Lake, refused to return the little girl to her mother.  While Ms. Hough was unsuccessful in her attempts to recover her daughter or serve legal process on the Red Lake reservation, her ex-husband was taking legal action in the Red Lake tribal court—in which his family has undue political influence.

In July 2000, by an ex parte order of the same Minnesota district court which had originally granted her custody, Ms. Hough’s custody of her daughter was taken away.  The State court reversed itself by recognizing a May 2000 Red Lake tribal court order granting custody to Meghan’s father and his parents, who were the sole parties present at the Red Lake tribal court proceedings.  Beltrami County’s recognition of Red Lake’s assertion of jurisdiction over Meghan was in violation of the State court’s own order: that the Bruns not be allowed to remove the child to Red Lake “for the purpose of changing her place of residence.”

Ms. Hough was reportedly not properly notified of the Red Lake tribal court hearing, and she was not informed of the State court’s ex parte proceedings.  The State’s recognition of the Red Lake court order was based on “principles of comity”: the principle by which courts of one state or jurisdiction recognize the laws and judicial decisions of another, not as a matter of obligation, but out of deference and respect.

In a telephone interview on March 27, 2001, Press/ON asked Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver how he could prosecute a young mother for taking her own child—while she still had State custody of her daughter.  Faver explained that parental and custodial rights were “ongoing,” and that the statute could apply to a situation in which one parent is “not able to exercise rights because the other parent has secreted the child.”  He commented, “had the Bruns said, ‘we know where she is’,” then they would have been required to resolve the custody dispute through “civil remedies”—and that warrants are not issued unless there is an “emergency situation.”  Faver stated that the “Bruns indicated that they had not been able to locate the child and her mother … there was no reason to disbelieve” them.  (Jawnie Hough was openly residing on Leech Lake reservation, and employed at the same place she had worked since her divorce in 1999.)

When asked about the apparent unfairness of Beltrami County’s ex parte custody reversal and subsequent criminal prosecution of Jawnie Hough, the Beltrami County Attorney explained that “a Court order is a Court order … Until the Court of Appeals says that it is inappropriate to recognize tribal court orders, unless [its] validity is questionable on its face,” Beltrami County “will continue to recognize” tribal court orders.  He pointed out that there were “two court orders at the time she took the child—two conflicting orders.”

Faver commented that, “… the Court ought to be inquiring as to the existence of orders from other courts.”  The courts should not be issuing “competing orders without the knowledge of the Judge.”  Judges in cases involving potentially competing jurisdictions should be asking, “‘Are there other orders should be affecting this?’ … Judges should be asking those questions.”

When pressed about Beltrami County’s continuing prosecution of Jawnie Hough, the County Attorney said, “the defense has not filed a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause.”  Jawnie Hough’s defense attorney has not appealed Beltrami County’s ex parte court order reversing State jurisdiction—nor has she sought reconsideration of the custody issue in the State courts based on the State Court’s assertion of ongoing jurisdiction in the original custody determination.

Meghan Brun is still at Red Lake—and the State of Minnesota would not have the authority to retrieve her from Red Lake if Jawnie Haugh were to regain legal custody of her daughter in State Court.  According to documents obtained by Press/ON, the little girl has medical problems requiring ongoing treatment—there are concerns about her health without the medical care only available to her off-reservation.  The Red Lake tribal courts have, at least twice, issued court orders based on proceedings in which Jawnie Hough was not accorded due process.  And, the Red Lake tribal courts have a long history of civil rights abuses and other problems. 

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